Mayor Rahm Emanuel Interview: Up Close

Mayor Rahm Emanuel Photo Credit: John L. Alexander

He is the second son of Benjamin and Marsha Emanuel, who along with his two brothers and a sister were raised in the North Shore suburb of Wilmette, IL, and has experienced a great deal of trials and triumphs in his personal life and professional career. Rahm Emanuel’s background is very complex but never boring—he studied ballet; turned down an invitation to the Joffrey School of Ballet. He graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and acquired a Masters in Communications from Northwestern University. He worked through the ranks of the Democratic Party and other public offices. Eventually, his efforts landed him a senior advisory position for President Clinton. Emanuel took a break from the rigorous world of politics to make millions as an investment banker then returned to public service to run for Congress and was elected to the House of Representatives in 2002. Later, he would play an historical role in becoming the Chief of Staff for the first elected African American President of the United States – Barack Obama.

To no surprise, Emanuel threw his hat in the ring for the mayor’s seat once Mayor Richard M. Daley decided not to seek a 7th term in office.

In 2011, with nearly 60 percent of the African American vote, Emanuel won an election that some had predicted would be on the merit of President Obama’s endorsement. Once again, Chicagoans crossed over this threshold four years later as Mayor Emanuel took his oath for a second term at his Inaugural Address in front of 1500 people as they packed the historic Chicago Theatre. This time he was elected on the merit of his job performance.

Joining him were 50 aldermen, City Treasurer Kurt Summers and the City Clerk Susana Mendoza —who were all sworn in for four years of public service. Sitting on the front row on the mayor’s right were President Bill Clinton and former Mayor Richard M. Daley. On the mayor’s left was his wife- Amy Rule and children; Zacharia, Ilana, and Leah.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel taking the oath of office for his second term.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel taking the oath of office for his second term. Photo Credit: John L. Alexander

Being forced into a runoff in April of this year Mayor Emanuel found himself having to delve deeper into the Black community and engage with faith, community and small business leaders for support. What was clear in the six weeks of intense campaigning was that ‘Black lives do matter’–especially Black voters. Gradually, it seemed that the Mayor’s ears were opened and his vision clearer. Again, the Black community was front and center and influential in electing the next Mayor of Chicago.

In an exclusive interview with the Chicago Defender, Mayor Emanuel took time to outline his vision for this new term, and discuss the challenges he faces as Mayor of Chicago.

CD – In your inaugural speech, you emphasized the importance of academic achievement and employment for our youth. Can you expand on why you felt it was important to drive this message home to people?

Mayor Emanuel – The reason I ran was so that I can get the education system right for our children and the opportunities which education provides. I wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a good education; and I wanted to speak specifically about kids that are pushed aside because it’s sometimes too hard to talk about it and we’ve tried everything and yet we can’t reach them. It’s not just about government and it’s just not about another program to hit a problem over the head. There’s a spiritual loss. These kids are aimless, they’re not anchored. They haven’t been touched by a parent’s affection, a coach’s encouragement, a teacher’s praise or an employer’s appreciation. None of us can go through life without this.

I wanted to speak to that – the responsibility that we have. Some people like to think that the job of the mayor is about making sure the numbers add up correctly. There’s more to public service, and it has to have a soul, it has to have a purpose. It’s what I care about and why I ran. If people know about my career, my life and growing up in my home– it calls one to public action. I wanted dedicate my second term to ‘that’ subject which usually gets brushed under the rug.

CD – We understand that the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Public Schools are deadlocked on contract negotiation. Is there a possibility of a teacher’s strike if an agreement cannot be reached?

Mayor Emanuel – No, because we’re not done with the school year. I was at one of the schools the other day and teachers are in there teaching right until the last minute, making sure kids receive the education and enrichment they need. 

We started conversations with CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union with the proper discussion that we can get resolved what needs to be resolved. I believe it’s in everyone’s interest to work through these issues. Now, regarding this contract, CPS is on the wall financially and they know that.

How can we get past this so that both CPS and CTU can reach a middle ground for the sake of students and taxpayers?

Mayor Emanuel – We have financial pressures like we’ve never had before; they’ve been building for years. We are going to be okay but everyone will have to work through a lot of these issues. No one can come to the table and say, ‘I have no responsibility in making this work. That’s your job.’ That’s not how we’re going to get there because we’re at a point of severe challenge. 

Many in the African American community were in support of you until the hard decision of closing 50 schools predominately on the West Side and South Side. What are some steps you’ve taken in moving forward to regain our trust?

Mayor Emanuel – We’ve had to do a lot of restructuring. The system was out of whack. We did not have a full day of kindergarten for every child. We did not have a full school day for the children of Chicago, we had the shortest school day in America. We had a number of good high schools and the rest we did not give the academic energy they needed. In 3 years, we went from a 4 out 10 drop out rate to 7 out of 10 graduation rate– a major flip. We’re on our way to a 60 percent turnaround and striving to 82 percent. Our ACT scores are at their highest and more kids are reading and doing math at their grade level than ever before. We have more level one schools than ever before and 6 out 10 top high schools in the state are from Chicago. For the first time Lincoln Park High School, which is a general acceptance school, is in the top 10 according to US News World Report. We have 3 of the top 100 schools in the country.

We had schools with 20-30 percent occupancy and we were spread too thin and we couldn’t put money into where it was needed. Not only were they under resourced, they were under performing.

People used to talk about our schools being a pipeline to the criminal justice system. We have the Chicago Star scholarship, where, if you have a B average, community college is free. We’re going from a Kindergarten to 12th grade to college model. That’s going to be the ‘game changer’ for the City of Chicago. It’s going to change the direction and the trajectory for the city and the economic opportunity for the city. 

Do you foresee a city property tax hike?

Mayor Emanuel – I’ve been in office for four years, trying to avoid it and that’s what I’m working towards. Everyone knows its looming there, so that they understand that I’ve looked under every rock, and I’m doing the things that are necessary at all costs. 

What are your plans for the second summer of “Put the Guns Down”?

Mayor Emanuel – We’re going to go out Friday night as part of our ‘Faith in Action’. My goal is to get people back to reclaiming the streets. Not only Friday night will be part of our efforts, but we also launched our Night Out in the Parks, which are free cultural events in our neighborhood parks and playgrounds throughout the city. If you’re out in Douglas Park or another park in the city, the likelihood that something bad is going happen with a lot of foot traffic, is diminished tremendously. Put the Guns Down

What are your thoughts on recruiting Urban radio participation and those who are critical because of the negative content which dominates the Urban radio playlists?

Mayor Emanuel – They are helpful in getting the message out there. I know that the kids they’re reaching don’t want to hear from me or Superintendent McCarthy. So hopefully they’ll hear from the DJs that work at the radio stations. My comment is towards the artists. God gave you a talent, is that how you want to use your talent? Do you want to degrade women? Do you want to talk about women in that way? Don’t you know that they are your mothers and your sisters? Do you want to talk about violence that way; you numb people to the horror of violence as an artist? It’s one thing when you’re educated but it’s another thing when you’re numbing people who aren’t. You know that responsibility comes with your talent—that’s what I would say. 

Any hints about where the library will be? Jackson or Washington Park?

Mayor Emanuel – I know this. This library is essential for the city and for the South Side. If the President picks Jackson Park, we’ll make it work. If the President picks Washington Park, we’ll make that work. We’ll make investments and the museum will shine to the world—both in the neighborhood, the community and the city. This is an economic cultural legacy that would be transformative. There’s no doubt about it.

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